In 'The Hubble Cantata,' opera blasts into the world of virtual reality

When 6,000 of her fellow audience members placed cardboard goggles on their faces to watch her five-minute virtual reality film, “Fistful of Stars,” Eliza McNitt’s heart broke from happiness.

She heard people shuffling around, then a brief silence followed by a collective gasp. This happened when viewers, many of whom had never experienced VR before, realized that they were being transported inside the Hubble Telescope in order to view the enigmatic enormity of the cosmos from its privileged perch beyond the earth’s atmosphere.

McNitt’s VR experience is the metaphorical tail on the multimedia comet that is classical composer Paola Prestini’s “The Hubble Cantata,” which swept up that huge audience in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park last summer and stages its West Coast premiere Wednesday at the Ford Theatres in Hollywood. Presented in association with Los Angeles Opera, the show features soprano Jessica Rivera and baritone Nathan Gunn singing a libretto by Royce Vavrek. Members of the L.A. Opera Orchestra, L.A. Opera Chorus and Los Angeles Children’s Chorus are also part of the production.

The performance is a cosmic collision of science and art on a novel scale, arriving at a time when experimental companies such as Yuval Sharon’s the Industry are using the classic art form to push technological and artistic innovation — and in the process draw a new generation of fans.

“What is so exciting about this project was being able to bring a new perspective to an art form that has existed for so long in order to provide a new way of experiencing it,” McNitt said by phone from New York. “I think storytelling is at the heart of all these experiences. We are trying to leave people with a sense of wonder and awe.”

Prestini first approached McNitt about the project a few years ago. She told McNitt that she wanted to create visuals for the performance, which tells the tale of an astrophysicist who looks to the mystery of the cosmos after losing his wife and child. This story finds its parallel in the life cycle of a star, which McNitt’s film reveals as viewers are transported to the Orion Nebula to watch a star be born, age and eventually explode in a supernova.

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Chris Alexakisart, activities